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It might sound insane to say, but TLC’s Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is without a doubt one of the most honest pieces of television that’s ever been filmed. And it’s that honesty that has polarized and revolted its audience. There are four important “plot points” that happen on the last episode of Honey Boo Boo that very neatly and succinctly sum up that jarring conflict that has existed at the core of the show through its whole first season:

  1. First, Alana’s family (The Thompsons (Alana is Honey Boo Boo btw)) tries to take a family portrait on the bank of a local river. At least, it looked like a river. Essentially, all 6 of the family members get together on the shore of a large body of standing water and bicker at each other until they get a useable photo.
  2. Then in the next sequence Alana’s 18-year-old sister Anna gives birth to a baby girl named Kaitlyn. The family is genuinely ecstatic and wonderfully supportive of the new addition to the family. It’s important to note, though, that baby Kaitlyn was born with three thumbs, two on her right hand, totaling eleven fingers… because like of course she has eleven fingers, sigh…
  3. After that it is revealed that Alana’s father Sugar Bear, a beautifully kind and patient man who is never once seen on camera without a beaming smile and a mouth full of chewing tobacco, has a gay brother. The family loves their gay uncle and proudly and lovingly refer to him as Uncle Poodle. When the producers ask why, Alana’s middle sister Pumpkin quite bluntly explains that “Alana calls all gay people poodles.” The family then has a big grass fight in the backyard with their Uncle Poodle.
  4. Lastly, and probably the least important part of the finale covers Alana’s pageant. And really, the beauty pageant portion of this show is so completely not the point of this that it really isn’t worth talking about.

These four moments make no sense together. And most episodes follow this format. Alana is being fit for a prosthetic ass in one scene, in the next she’s watching Fourth of July fireworks on a lakeside sitting on her mother’s lap. And it’s safe to say that mainstream viewers have never seen a raw feed of the grossness, baseness, and undignified weirdness of a real family on TV. And in that same swing, most people aren’t used to seeing the real and downright fucked up-ness that comes with actually loving your family. A loving family is goddamn fucked up. 

Alana’s family is a demented group of Walmart-brand Morlocks that chug liters of soda and actually at one point are seen EATING FUCKING MELTED BUTTER AND KETCHUP. And worse than that, the butter-ketchup sauce they wolf down like frenzied monkey-people is apparently a family recipe that goes back two generations.

That is real. That is the fucked up nightmare world that exists inside the walls of every American home, to some extent. It’s that really American swirl of rampant commercialistic detritus that we’re forced to mold around our lives around. The Thompsons live in rural Georgia, the heart of the post-Walmart wasteland that has eaten up our culture like some kind of HP Lovecraft monster, and yet they’re just trying to do their best. They live next to a gas station mini-mart where they do most of their shopping. Their mother is an extreme couponer with hoarding tendencies. That is the new American reality right there. And the horrible, sad, soul-crushing 21st century American culture of families just trying to go with it.

Alana’s mom June is the mother of all the girls in the house. She had her first daughter when she was 15. That daughter, Anna, is the 18-year-old who has the eleven-fingered baby. It’s then explained that June (or “Mama”) worked in a packing plant until an industrial accident gave her what she calls “Forklift Foot.” “Forklift Foot” is, according to Mama, a condition you get after a forklift mangles your foot beyond all recognition. She now cannot work and receives disability checks for it. I think. Pretty sure. Details are sketchy on it.

Alana’s father Sugar Bear works in — I kid you not — chalk mines. The man works in a fucking chalk mine. He is not married to June and is only the biological father of Alana. He does not say much, but anything he does say is usually a painfully lovely statement about how much it means to him that the girls treat him like a father.

The family lives simply and doesn’t think too much about anything outside their immediate world, but never maliciously. But we’re used looking at the xenophobic rural Americans that the news shows holding signs outside of abortion clinics. We aren’t however used to seeing these people as just people. The Thompsons aren’t branded as villains or even as particularly interesting or useful people like in similar shows like Swamp People. They aren’t loud-mouthed political pawns or diamonds in the rough gimmicks, they’re just a really normal and weird family that does weird shit together to pass the time.

It’s sad and amazing that something so genuine is so immediately gross to mainstream audiences. But it’s nice to know that Honey Boo Boo did so well in ratings. It should be a good thing that there was a show that showed a real family doing real stuff. Like a scene where a 40-year-old grandmother bottle-feeds her granddaughter, smiling proudly from the crowd, as her youngest 7-year-old daughter, on stage in a sparkly pink pageant gown, is surprised by her gay uncle carrying their pet pig up the stage steps. Yes, that happened.

In Little Miss Sunshine the main characters have a super mumblecore revelation that’s like “fuck it, man, like fuck like people who judge you and shit man.” And that’s great for movies, but in real life, things are way more complicated and stranger. In Honey Boo Boo, there’s a moment where Alana puts make up on her mother and then tells the camera that she was proud to make her Mama look beautiful. And that’s why Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is important. 

Because if you think about it, the screen that sits in every family’s living room constantly tells you that you aren’t good enough, or pretty enough, or interesting enough. It shows you pretty “Modern” families having easily resolved problems and loving each other at PG-13 levels of intimacy that fucking suck. And the most messed up thing about Honey Boo Boo is that when a show finally attempted to get close to showing some sense of the nonsense-reality we all live in people were horrified. And that’s sad and poignant and something to think about I guess.

Guest post by Ryan Broderick who blogs here

HBO: The Cool Kids With Nothing To Say Anymore

When it comes to original, scripted programming, HBO has firmly secured its place in the echelon of “television do-gooders”. A beautiful list of groundbreaking dramas and comedies have been birthed by this pay-channel that once had insight and, well, balls, along with the censor-less freedom to tackle any subject matter they desired. It’s the beast of this latter ability, however, alongside with general cool-hunting that has reared its ratings-hungry head in the face of what once made the channel’s original programming so wonderful and subsequently, let if fall by the wayside.

It comes as absolutely no surprise that in the past eight weeks HBO has renewed Girls for its third season and cancelled Enlightened after its tour-de-force second. Obviously, television exists in a Gladiator-esque forum wherein the bloodthirsty masses thrust gut-reaction thumbs by way of ad sales and ratings figures. The once-virgin beauty of HBO, however, eschewed this system—not only by existing as a subscription service that forewent traditional commercial breaks, but also in their creative direction to push forward with well-written, unflinching, and remarkable stories about, basically, being human. That’s what has so often worked in their favor. Maybe not always for their ratings but if not there then definitely in esteemed accolades (which then inflated their amount of subscribers anyway). 

The oxygen-soaked spark of this punk television attitude came about during a post-Reagan era of strange, late-late shows. They aired, successfully, oddballs like Tales from the Crypt, Real Sex, Def Comedy Jam, The Kids in the Hall, and the seminal The Larry Sanders Show— which would bring their programming out of the midnight cult scene and pave the way for many more realistic and sharp narratives. They got in with the weird and then started refining themselves.

Throughout the mid-nineties this alternative comedy edge stayed sharp and gave us Arliss, Tenacious D, Tracy Takes On..., and the brilliant Mr. Show. Then, HBO almost completely ended their sketch sensibilities with their first hour-long drama: Oz, a chillingly realistic and deftly written tragedy about life, or lack thereof, in prison (a particularly violent show that my parents, who held strictly true to the age limits of the MPAA, actually made me watch to deter me from a life of crime—I was fifteen; it worked). Oz was the harbinger of HBO’s golden age. In the next five years earth-shattering shows such as Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and The Wire would leave their imprints in television history alongside well-tailored and beautiful mini-series like Angels in America and Band of Brothers. The amount of Emmys this half-decade period produced would be enough to melt down and fund a new space program.

If the early 90s was HBO’s “Cult” period then afterward came the period of “Storytelling,” with an intermediate phase that had a logistical crossover between them. They took steps to get there and they took them well. On the tail end of their golden age, however, another intermediate period began to develop crossing an emphasis on storytelling with what was working so well for their ratings: edgy ideas. And so were born Entourage, Deadwood, Extras*, Big Love, Flight of The Concords*, and True Blood [*although these only lasted two seasons, it’s important to note that, unlike Enlightened, they chose to cancel themselves]. These shows were still interesting enough outside of their “quirky” settings by handling their scenarios just as well as continuing to tell good, and sometimes great, stories (even if Entourage and True Blood devolved into mindless garbage over the years, both had substantial and promising beginnings that lasted more than two seasons). These shows were the tipping point, and the tail end of the “storytelling” era, that brought us into the current state of affairs at HBO: the era of “Cool”.

Concerned more with bringing in viewers in a climate of rapidly decreasing television viewership than dedicating themselves to excellent craftsmanship, HBO seemed to seek out a large amount of salacious and surprising material, with an eye on the modern youth who was more into downloading than buying premium packages through their cable provider. Hung (a show that never knew which tone it wanted to convey), How To Make It In America (a show that had most of the puzzle pieces of Girls but focused more on achieving success than on absurd confessional-ism), and Bored to Death (the only one that seemed to harbor sharp writing and a sense of fresh modernity) all failed early on. Instead of rethinking their rubric, they pushed for more ratings-bait ideas— where now the popularity of a show won over its quality.

Now, this is not to say that some shows still exist on the channel that juggle both: Game of Thrones is a masterfully handled storytelling experience, but it also had a largely built-in fanbase to begin with and has filled a fantasy void in most television viewers’ schedules. Girls and Eastbound and Down both had subtle, heart-examining first seasons worthy of many merits, but soon after started focusing more on shock with nearly robotic human interactions. But the ratings were still there, so they got to stay. Veep is too early to call and The Newsroom is too Sorkinese of a wild card.

Unfortunately, this is just how it seems to go when you have a good thing on your hands. If HBO was the punk in a Stooges jacket it was only a matter of time until he traded in his safety pins and liberty spikes for a 401k and a house in the suburbs. Maybe FX, with its shining light Louie (hey! remember when HBO fucked this up all those years ago?!), is the young-blood following in its footsteps.

This current model, this cool-huntin, is bound to fail. If I learned anything in high school it’s that trying to convince anyone else that you’re cool will tell them just the opposite. Jonah Hill’s character says in 21 Jump Street, about the current state of coolness: “liking comic books is popular, environmental awareness, being tolerant…” So does that, coupled with its complete lack of trying to be so, make Enlightened the coolest show around? Then good riddance, HBO, because House of Cards, Cougar Town, Arrested Development, and Friday Night Lights have shown us that there is life off the networks and life after cancellation.

Alan Hanson is a writer who can be found here.

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We’re now less than a week away from a fourth season of Arrested Development, a whole brand new season of the cult classic brought to us by the wonderful people over at Netflix. And, as is the Netflix way, they are going to release the entire 15-episode fourth season all at once. That’s seven and a half hours of new Bluth family dysfunction to devour. I’m afraid I just blue myself.

If you’re like me, you didn’t watch Arrested Development when it originally aired. Don’t worry, not many of us did. But when I did finally watch it, I watched it all. I made up for lost time and watched all three seasons in marathon sessions. And seven and a half hours after it’s released, I’ll have watched the fourth season.

There are many ways in which Arrested Development was ahead of its time, but one of the major ways is that it was basically made for binge viewing. It’s packed to the brim with running jokes and it is so self referential that to watch it from week-to-week means missing a lot of the subtle nods and call backs that make it so enjoyable. They hinted at plotlines as early as in the first season that didn’t have pay off until the third, making it infinitely rewatchable as you hunt for these references. The “On the next.. Arrested Development” never actually contained footage from the next episode but was just a way to both tie up loose ends and keep the jokes going. There’s no doubt that it was a groundbreaking series and while it never found its footing on network television, it had a huge impact on the industry.  For one, it marked the beginning of the end of appointment television.

The principle of appointment television dictated TV scheduling since its inception as networks tried to figure out ways to keep viewers glued to their station. Hoping to prevent their viewers from ever changing the channel, they tried to maximize flow by packing line-ups with similar content (Fox’s Animation Domination, NBC’s Must See TV) and having the next show start while the last show’s credits are still rolling. Notice you’ll almost never see commercials between programs because that’s when you’re most likely to see what else is on. But now, not much really qualifies as Must See TV. DVR and streaming services like Netflix and Hulu have freed us from the need to schedule our lives based on when our favorite shows air but instead lets us watch at our leisure.

If Arrested Development started ringing the death bells for appointment TV, it was shows like Lost and 24 that put the nails in the coffin. These were two blockbuster shows that were filled with high-octane action and complicated storylines. To watch them as they aired, waiting week in and week out, took you out of the pacing and drew out the action of the shows. In Lost, they were originally on that island for 108 days but that played out over six seasons and six years. Keeping track of all the characters and their backstories was enough work but then you throw in all the crazy twists and turns and mysteries that surrounded the island and it became nearly impossible to stay on top of it all.

However, if you watch them now, it’s so easy to fly through several episodes in a single sitting. The cliffhangers at the end of episodes, instead of leaving you in a suspenseful moment, propel you to keep watching and to find out what happens next. Lost becomes a lot less confusing and you can actually watch 24 in 24 hours.

 Binge viewing and these marathon sessions have become more and more commonplace and Netflix’s new model of putting out their original shows all at once only add to it. While Arrested Development didn’t make it on Fox, it’s going to be exciting to see how the show is made differently for this new season. Although it was basically made for binge viewing before, it is actually being made for it now. The writers who crafted such incredibly intricate stories and jokes the first time around can now embrace the format and really let it flow. And, even though they are experimenting with a new form where each character gets their own episodes, Mitch Hurwitz has still acknowledged that you need to watch them in order.

 While there are still vestiges of appointment TV that remain, shows like Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad where, if you watch them, you have to watch them when they air or you have to work really hard to avoid the spoiler plagued internet until you have the time to catch up. But these are now the exceptions, not the rule. More and more shows understand that their audience might not be tuning in at the original broadcast, and networks are starting to realize that the plummeting ratings doesn’t necessarily mean viewership is disappearing but that they’re watching in new ways. Ten years after Arrested Development originally premiered, the show is changing the industry yet again by embracing the Netflix model. After the Arrested Development marathons next weekend all we’ll be able to ask is well, what’s next? 

Guest post by Alex Smith of The Fresh Funk Gazette.

WWE and the Pitfalls of Nostalgia

Professional wrestling is a bizarre thing. The appeal of it is difficult to explain to someone who isn’t a fan. You either get it or you don’t. The best I can do is compare an episode of Monday Night Raw to an episode of The Muppet Show. They’re both vaudevillian presentations structured around an authority figure struggling to deal with an array of larger than life personalities. Only the Muppets use a stage while the WWE use a wrestling ring. Most fans discover it at a young age and they’ll always maintain an appreciation for it, even if they don’t watch it anymore.

It’s certainly not as big as it was in the Attitude Era, but the WWE has had somewhat of a resurgence as of late—a lot of which could be attributed to the drawing power of nostalgia. Since guys like The Rock and Brock Lesnar have returned to the ring, many viewers who stopped watching have taken an interest again. Unfortunately, the emphasis on former stars is very much a large problem with the current product.

In terms of pure wrestling, the current WWE roster is arguably the strongest it has ever been. CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, Kofi Kingston and Dolph Ziggler are all better wrestlers than most of the guys from the Attitude Era were. Of course, it’s difficult to see that when they’re never given the opportunity to show it. With it being Wrestlemania season, WWE is in full-out huckster mode. In every three-hour episode of Raw, there’s only about twenty-five minutes of actual wrestling and the rest of the show is spent hocking t-shirts, toys, and social media applications. It feels less like a television show and more like a QVC infomercial. If the fans wanted to see a bunch of oily people scream at each other while commerce is thrown in their faces, they’d watch MTV. Otherwise, they’re subjected to three-minute long, one-sided matches. A wrestling match is a story in itself with beats and an escalation of suspense. When the ending is a foregone conclusion, the investment is lost. If you’ve seen one Ryback match, you’ve seen them all.

What the Attitude Era lacked in good wrestling, it made up for in strong characters. The Rock had that over-the-top arrogance people loved, Mankind was a living cartoon, D-Generation X was all about controversy, and everyone wished they could’ve stuck it to their boss the way Steve Austin did. Compelling characters have been absent from the program ever since. What’s the defining characteristic of John Cena? He’s just a guy wearing jean shorts. The rest of the roster are either defined by their ethnicity or a one-note joke that runs out of steam all too quickly. With wrestlers not being given a chance to wrestle nor the writers giving them good characters to compensate for that, they lack credibility in the eyes of the fans. Therefore, the success of this year’s Wrestlemania is all based around the nostalgia of wrestlers from ten years ago.

People are drawn to nostalgia because it reminds them of simpler times; when they were younger and it seemed like their interests were always catered to. However, nostalgia can be both misleading and cynical. Wearing those rose-colored glasses will make you believe everything in past was great and that everything in the present sucks. The Rock, Brock Lesnar, Triple H, and The Undertaker all have marquee value, but they’re going to return to their day jobs and semi-retirement soon. Once that happens, the interest of the nostalgia-dwelling fans will more than likely diminish.

The Rock has barely been present for his program with John Cena as is. While he’s been busy acting as an apologist for the first G.I. Joe movie, the build up for Wrestlemania’s main event has rested on the shoulders of someone the fans have been sick of for the last seven years.

A wrestler like The Undertaker just seems out of place in the current climate of WWE. His Wrestlemania opponent, CM Punk, works best when he can bring aspects of reality into the storyline. With CM Punk’s opponent being a zombie with superpowers, it might be a bit difficult for him to drop the proverbial “pipe bombs”. Because of this, they’ve turned to drawing heat from the actual death of Paul Bearer, the Undertaker’s former manager. They’re not quite exploiting it the way they exploited Eddie Guerrero’s death years ago, but it does feel like a crutch for the story to hinge on.

Then you have Brock Lesnar and Triple H, two performers who serve no purpose in having a match together. They already have credibility and neither of them would suffer from a loss. It feels like a vanity match more than anything. They’ve attempted to spice it up by adding the stipulation that if Triple H loses, he’ll be forced to retire. Considering he only wrestles once or twice a year anyway, it doesn’t feel like much is at stake.

There’s definitely a place on the card for the veterans, but they’d be better suited elevating the wrestlers who will be carrying the show for the rest of the year as opposed to taking the spotlight from them. At the rate WWE is going right now, it’s hard to imagine they’ll be able to sell Wrestlemania 39 off of the nostalgia of Cody Rhodes’ mustache.

By selling out an entire football stadium for Wrestlemania, WWE obviously maintains a large fan base despite all of its flaws. What makes these flaws so frustrating is that they have the potential to have a really good product. Professional wrestling is a great satire on sports culture and even with the roster capable of pulling that off, WWE doesn’t take advantage of that. They’re too busy living in the past while having lost sight of what made it awesome in the first place. I suppose Vince McMahon knows that there will always be lifers (like myself) who will always shell out the money for it, regardless of how much they complain. Nostalgia isn’t the only thing that’s draws people to professional wrestling now: there’s also an element of irony. If you’re over the age of 10 and still watch wrestling, it’s likely with a least a hint of irony. Hate-loving the inherent stupidity is part of what makes it fun.

Once a fan, you’ll always be a fan. Whether you like it or not.

Guest Post by Morgan Eschmann.